This article was published in Spectator Scoff in the spring of 2011.
year, in a nod towards austerity, I gave up my membership to Milk and Honey, a cocktail
club in Soho.
I rationalised that
as a non-member, I could still book a dimly lit, silver-toned booth downstairs
to enjoy their delicious Penicillin – a reviving concoction of peaty whisky,
honey, ginger and lemon -
until 11 p.m.
However, as I sipped
my farewell M&H dry martini, made with a twist of lemon and some fragrant
Junipero gin, it struck me that there is something comforting in having a
regular drinking den. Clearly, research was needed.
requirements were simple: superlative cocktails, convivial atmosphere and
within walking distance of home.
Life takes on a different perspective if you can stroll through London
streets after a negroni or two. As I quizzed friends on their favourite hidden
drinking dens, it emerged that bars are like old slippers; they’re loved
because they fit comfortably with the drinker’s personality. Was I the sort of
person who enjoyed tumbling down the stairs of the St Moritz in Soho, or more
of a sophisticated Duke’s bar drinker?
Did I like keeping classic, or prefer a more modern approach? There was
only one way to find out.
my research with Purl, a basement bar in Marylebone that specialises in
molecular mixology, the latest fashion in cocktails. According to director
Tristan Stephenson, this means using liquid nitrogen, foams, fogs, dry ice and
sperification (tiny jellied balls of flavoured liquid) to create drinks that
still resonate with the past. Think Ferran Adrià meets Dale deGroff.
If it were not for the burly doorman,
you could easily pass by Purl’s railings, without knowing that the 18th-century
vaults beneath your feet were full of Londoners quaffing Mr Hyde’s Fixer Upper
(made from smoke injected Ron Zucapa rum). The extreme chilling of liquid
nitrogen changes both the taste and the texture of alcohol, making even the
driest martini strangely sweet and syrupy.
So, molecular mixology was struck off the list.
people had mentioned Barts, a speakeasy bar with no address.
Since it was hidden within Chelsea
Cloisters, it was going to have to be very good to justify the walk across
London. It proved to be more like a private Sloane-ranger club - youthful,
jolly and obliging, with a list of colourful, sweet cocktails that you could
pour from a teapot. It failed on quality, so my drinking character was taking
shape: I needed sophistication.
choice was another recommendation: Dukes Bar in Dukes Hotel, famed for its
Very St James’s with its
midnight blue velvet chairs and well-travelled clientele. You might think that
one martini is much like another, but you’d be wrong.
Dukes Bar serves a ‘naked’ martini. A frozen glass is
sprayed with the merest hint of vermouth before neat gin or vodka is poured
into the glass, straight from the freezer.
No stirring or shaking over ice – this is pure alcohol,
finished with a twist of Almalfi lemon peel. You need more than a bowl of nuts
to stay focused after such a drink.
friends within the drinks world had told me that I had to visit the upstairs
bar at Rules restaurant in Covent Garden, as under the auspices of Brian Silva
it had become
place for top-notch cocktails.
It’s tucked above the restaurant and is curiously reminiscent of an
Oxford pub with its swirly burgundy carpet, undulating floor, latticed windows
and hunting scenes. Looking round, there were none of the glamorous blondes and
media types that you find amidst the buzz of Mark’s downstairs at Hix in
Nor were there the strange
drinks combinations that you get at the Experimental Cocktail Club in Gerrard
Street, such as sweet chilli pepper purée in vodka.
Instead, there is a convivial atmosphere, comfortable seats
and perfectly balanced, utterly delicious drinks made with true sensitivity. As
Brian Silva explains “I try to modernise drinks by retaining their balance.”
The small drinks menu changes regularly, but like all true bars, they can read
their customers well and create exquisite drinks to suit their taste. It is the
sort of place you feel that Samuel Johnson might have enjoyed had he discovered
cocktails rather than tea. I’d found my new drinking den.
Manhattan, New York.
knock back a Jameson whiskey with a pickle chaser, alongside an off-duty NYPD
officer, while looking on to the prison next door” says James (Jocky) Petrie,
Head Chef of the Fat Duck’s Experimental Kitchen.